NM State of the Judiciary: “Furlough closures of backlogged courts don’t save a dime for the taxpayer or for the government.”

The National Center for State Courts has an archive of 2011, 2010, and previous years State of the Judiciary addresses located here.

New Mexico Chief Justice  Charles W. Daniels delivered his State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the New Mexico Legislature on January 27. Interestingly, unlike in most states, the Governor of the state was in attendance for the speech.

Highlights of the Chief Justice’s speech (full text here) included:

Sometimes we refer to ourselves as independent branches of government, and in a lot of ways, that’s true… But we can’t forget that the three branches are also dependent on each other. We have to work together to provide the government the people need, the government they created in the constitution. The biggest example of the dependence of the judicial branch is that we’re dependent on the other two branches for the resources we need to sustain the system of justice required by the constitution.

To keep the flame of justice burning, we have to come to you for the necessary fuel.

We’ve been working hard to cut costs wherever we can do it without violating our obligations to the law and to the people of New Mexico. Senator John Arthur Smith [Senate Finance Committee Chair -ed.] went out of his way to publicly recognize our cost-cutting efforts when the [Legislative Finance Committee] released its budget recommendations a couple of weeks ago, and we thank him for that.

After this financial crisis became obvious, we started meeting to deal with it on both a statewide and a local level. We realized that the immediate challenge was to keep the justice system functioning right now, but at the same time we had to plan for the future, to provide better services and to do it with the least cost…To survive in the short term, we’ve had to make hard and sometimes painful cost-cutting decisions…But we’ve found the courts can’t really save enough money by cutting costs in equipment and supplies. Providing justice is a personnel-intensive kind of work. Between 90 and 95% of each court’s budget is in personnel.

We’ve tried to avoid the superficial solution of sending workers home without pay, a practice that is euphemistically called furloughs, because we need them at work. Without people at work, the courts have to close. That violates the state’s constitutional obligation to keep the doors of justice open. Spacing it out a few hours here and a few hours there is just violating the constitution on the installment plan.

But the practical reality is this: Furlough closures of backlogged courts don’t save a dime for the taxpayer or for the government. It’s not like a furlough closure of a museum or a park or a tourist train, where you can actually save money by cutting services to the public on a given day. The work of busy courts just gets even more backed up and still takes the same resources, the same employee time, the same expense to process. That murder trial or DWI sentencing or custody hearing or even the paperwork processing doesn’t go away. It’s a case of pay me now or pay me later.

So we’ve had to cut back on important programs to keep the doors open to do the work the constitution requires us to do. Let me give you one example, our DWI and Drug and other problem-solving courts…These cuts may help us survive within our court budgets, but they don’t really save money for the taxpayers who pay the bills. You can see in black and white how cuts in the DWI and drug courts increase costs for prisons and jails and law enforcement and public defenders and [New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department] and other tax-funded agencies.

On the bright side, in addition to keeping our doors open, we’ve found ways to increase revenue to the state through credit card use, collection agencies to go after wrongdoers who won’t pay, and new warrant enforcement approaches….We’re brainstorming every possible way to operate a constitutional justice system better and faster and more economically, and we’re willing to give up old familiar ways to do it. We’ve been expanding the use of videoconferencing for such things as meetings, arraignments, and other proceedings. We’re installing and training our people in a new kind of statewide case management system where information is being completely computerized instead of being buried in paper court files and where it can be accessed instantly from the judge’s bench and other locations. We’re now setting up remote electronic filing, so you can file documents or get them remotely 24 hours a day without having to go stand in line at the court and so court staff won’t have to spend so much time handling the papers. In fact, if someone wants to come to the court and file a paper document, we scan it and put it into the electronic system and don’t have to deal with the paper any more. Anyone who wants a paper copy can just print it off.

With their input, we’ve created our own ad hoc Judicial Reengineering Commission, similar to the Legislature’s Government Restructuring Task Force that studied other parts of government. The Commission has representation from the judiciary, the Senate, the House, lawyers with civil and criminal and prosecution experience, and even from the business community. We’ve invited the Governor to name a member.

It’s going to take a lot of serious thought and a lot of hard work, but I’m confident that we’ll work together in the interests of the people of New Mexico. And I’m convinced that we will all do whatever it takes to make sure the flame of justice never dies.